The Flawed Educational Policy

Yesterday it was suggested in comments that I was mischaracterizing or exaggerating the emphasis by the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama Administrations on higher education. I don’t think I am and I’ll give three quick examples.

Bill Clinton, June 4, 1996

PRINCETON, N.J. (AllPolitics, June 4) — President Bill Clinton, in a commencement talk at Princeton University today, proposed a tax break to finance two years of post-high school education. (224K WAV sound)

“It’s America’s most basic bargain,” Clinton told the graduating seniors. “We’ll help create opportunity if you’ll take responsibility.”

[…]

Administration officials say the president wants to “make clear that two years of college should be as universal as high school.”

George W. Bush, January 20, 2004

We must ensure that older students and adults can gain the skills they need to find work now. Many of the fastest- growing occupations require strong math and science preparation and training beyond the high-school level. So tonight I propose a series of measures called Jobs for the 21st Century. This program will provide extra help to middle- and high-school students who fall behind in reading and math, expand Advanced Placement programs in low-income schools, invite math and science professionals from the private sector to teach part-time in our high schools.

I propose larger Pell Grants for students who prepare for college with demanding courses in high school. I propose increasing support for America’s fine community colleges, so they can train workers for industries that are creating the most new jobs. By all these actions, we will help more and more Americans to join in the growing prosperity of our country.

Barack Obama, August 9, 2010

I’ve called for doubling our exports within the next five years, so that we’re not just buying from other countries, I want us to sell to other countries. We’ve talked about doubling our nation’s capacity to generate renewable energy by 2012, because I’m actually convinced that if we control the clean energy future, then our economic future will be bright — building solar panels and wind turbines and biodiesel. And I want us to produce 8 million more college graduates by 2020, because America has to have the highest share of graduates compared to every other nation.

But, Texas, I want you to know we have been slipping. In a single generation, we’ve fallen from first place to 12th place in college graduation rates for young adults. Think about that. In one generation we went from number one to number 12.

Now, that’s unacceptable, but it’s not irreversible. We can retake the lead. If we’re serious about making sure America’s workers — and America itself — succeeds in the 21st century, the single most important step we can take is make — is to make sure that every one of our young people — here in Austin, here in Texas, here in the United States of America — has the best education that the world has to offer. That’s the number one thing we can do.

Now, when I talk about education, people say, well, you know what, right now we’re going through this tough time. We’ve emerged from the worst recession since the Great Depression. So, Mr. President, you should only focus on jobs, on economic issues. And what I’ve tried to explain to people — I said this at the National Urban League the other week — education is an economic issue. Education is the economic issue of our time.

It’s an economic issue when the unemployment rate for folks who’ve never gone to college is almost double what it is for those who have gone to college. Education is an economic issue when nearly eight in 10 new jobs will require workforce training or a higher education by the end of this decade. Education is an economic issue when we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that countries that out-educate us today, they will out-compete us tomorrow.

The emphasis in each instance is mine. That’s not cherry-picking on my part. I just produced the first relevant quotes I could find. I could produce thousands of others and references to dozens of pieces of legislation over the period of the last two decades. I think it’s clear from the context that all three men are emphasizing the importance of higher education, something that’s not borne out by the facts.

I attribute this misunderstanding on their part to ignorance of statistics. They know that the average salary of college graduates is higher and conclude that higher education raises salaries, not understanding the the very high wages of a very small number of (mostly subsidized) professionals distorts the figures.

38 comments… add one

  • Icepick

    I attribute this misunderstanding on their part to ignorance of statistics.

    BWAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!

  • TastyBits

    It takes at least two years in college to obtain a high school education. The solution should be to fix high school.

  • The solution should be to fix high school.

    Exactly. The problem: in our big cities the on-time graduation rate has been stuck at around 50% for a half century.

  • Icepick

    It takes at least two years in college to obtain a high school education. The solution should be to fix high school.

    That’s a depressing part of being in junior college and even decent four year schools: A great deal of the teaching of freshmen and sophomores is remedial in nature.

  • TastyBits

    @Dave Schuler

    I think the quality of the degree is a larger problem.

    @Icepick

    This is part of the reason why a job application with only a HS degree is tossed. As you have noted, it takes too long to determine the quality of the HS degree.

  • Icepick

    For today’s shocker, we now discover, with the re-election of the Anointed One safely achieved, that the economy actually sucks. Who would have ever thunk it?! Why, it’s almost like they were just kidding in the past about the recovery….

  • Drew

    Please folks don’t take this the wrong way – its not bragging – but I find the point Tasty and Dave make about HS to be absolutely correct.

    I’ve noted that my daughter has entered a high school where the students have the second highest ACT score average (and median) in the state of IL, after IMSA. We came from a rather robust public school district. The difference is night and day. These kids actually come out fully prepared for college and their degree means something. Its a no BS program.

    If we could improve the general education level, and add comparable trade skills we’d really be on to something. If I’m not mistaken its really the German model.

  • steve

    What I find positive here, is that if you follow what the last 3 presidents have said, is that they are emphasizing more than just 4 year degree programs. They are also advocating community colleges and technical training. I would also add in problems with rural schools which have many of the same issues as urban schools.

    Steve

  • Drew

    “For today’s shocker, we now discover…”

    I was chastised awhile back (Doug M took some crap from one of the moron commenters over there too) for noting that the unemployment and GDP figures couldn’t be right. I’d add the inflation number, too. (And the, ahem “housing recovery”)

    No! No! How dare you question apolitical career staffers! Bull. We own a bunch of businesses. We talk to a bunch of business owners. Its very tepid out there. And the full effects of the tax increases are just seeping into the economy.

    Careful, folks. Its dangerous out there.

  • PD Shaw

    Drew, how do you account for selection bias? Is your child attending a school with a random selection of kids?

  • jan

    To me it’s less about the money being applied to education — just compare what we invest in our children to what other country’s do. Just look at Washington DC, which has one of the largest per capita money expenditure along with one of the poorest performance records, in the nation.

    Strong words of Presidents do nothing if they are not implemented by meaningful actions, on the local level. That’s hard to do because of Teacher Unions literally tying the hands of any educational reform they can possibly take to court and battle. After all, whatever is not in the best interests of the Unions is then espoused as not being in the best interests of “the kids.” It’s selfish hypocrisy, IMO!

    In the meantime, via some of the smaller educational experiments that have circumvented Union control, it has been shown that changing the curriculum, standards, teaching styles, involving parents more, and centering academic goals on the joy of learning rather the joy of being more PC, has been far more successful than just throwing more wasted money at the problem, while keeping everything else the same.

  • Drew

    “Drew, how do you account for selection bias? Is your child attending a school with a random selection of kids?”

    PD –

    No, its just the opposite. You have to test in, and its sink or swim. (You can look up the school, its Benet Academy) My point is, here in Naperville you have Matea Valley, North, Central, Nequa etc. All good schools. You can go to your Hinsdales or New Triers, all good schools. But our experience has been that they just pale in comparison. And this will be very politically incorrect, but what is happening is that some of these schools have to take in the Section 8 housing types and adjust the curriculum accordingly. Others, say a Hinsdale, don’t have that, but THEY are becoming politically correct. That is a disservice to the whole.

    I don’t want to sound like a nun rapping the knuckles of students, but it is a very competitive world. Trying is not enough. Performance and tailoring schooling to specific needs is vital.

  • Drew

    jan

    I would only add, based on our middle school experience (subpar) that its really the administrators who bear the lions share of the blame. We attempted to be active parents, but ended up meeting more with a bunch of uppity administrators than teachers……..and no one in the community really seems to know what those administrators do, except collect a six figure salary. I’m not kidding.

  • Drew

    PS –

    PD – and the school doesn’t deal with a “curve” concept. It has absolute standards. So student selection is interesting, and yes they have a good crew, but you get taught and measured against timeless standards. IMHO that’s the only way to go.

  • Many of the fastest- growing occupations require strong math and science preparation and training beyond the high-school level.

    The problem with this thinking is that math is not something you can just learn, it is something that you have to have innate talent at to get to higher levels. Try running the delta-epsilon arguments for the derivative past first year college students and the vast majority will give you a blank look. Even after working on it for hours, most just wont get it.

    I attribute this misunderstanding on their part to ignorance of statistics.

    No, not quite it is more the understandings of the philosophy behind statistics. People can grasp the concept of mean, variance, and even correlation. Where they often fall flat on their faces is that all of those measures can be wrong, and in the case of the last one, the direction of cause-and-effect is not in anyway described by the statistics in question. For things like cause-and-effect you need theory or more accurately a hypothesis derived from a theory. With out this crucial step all the statistics in the world wont do you much good.

    And I share Icepick’s black humor on this one. I have no doubt that the politicians, or at least some of their senior advisers understand not only the statistics, but the underlying methodology/philosophy and that simply making more college graduates is not going to result in rising incomes. They know this. People like Summers, Romer, Krueger, Jim Stock, Chinhui Juhn, Goolsbee, Bernanke, and Lazear all know this. They also know that to train people who aren’t as talented at things like math will likely take increasing amounts of resources (i.e. to go from N graduates in mathematics to 2N will likely take considerably more than 2x the resources).

    Like I said, we don’t have bad policy by accident, we have it on purpose. They know these things wont work, but that isn’t what the voters/public wants to hear. What they want to hear is simple low cost solutions to complex problems that likely also have dramatically higher costs.

  • PD Shaw

    Drew, I guess what I’m looking for in terms of education policy is evidence of what things schools can do that are independent from (a) the cognitive ability of the student by age five and (b) parental involvement/support. I am more inclined to believe that the highly structured versus less structured format is a child-specific matter.

    steve, my impression is that funding for vocational programs is declining in this country because the focus is on college-prep. If the Presidents are supporting both with the bully-pulpit, its not getting through. For instance, Illinois is switching its “no child left behind” tests to a more rigorous college preparatory exam that more students will fail than the previous I-SATs. I’m at a loss to understand this; I thought our educational program had too many kids graduating that couldn’t read because they were getting passed through. There used to be a value in high school independent of college prep.

  • Oh, and the likely method of making more college graduates isn’t going to invest more in getting people who previously weren’t up to making the grade at college better able to make that grade…it will be to lower current standards so that the grade is easier to achieve. It would be like lowering and widening the basketball hoop and then claiming victory that there are more people able to score well enough to get into the NBA.

  • Oh and all talk of education policy is bullshit until you address the problem of Gammon’s Law. Until then you are just spewing crap and nonsense.

    All of you.

  • The problem with this thinking is that math is not something you can just learn, it is something that you have to have innate talent at to get to higher levels.

    My high school AP math teacher called it “mathematical maturity”. Some people had it at young ages and could handle calculus and beyond. Some people didn’t and couldn’t. Some people never developed it.

  • Drew

    You are on a roll, Steve V.

  • Drew
  • He was led to enunciate what he called “the theory of bureaucratic displacement.” In his words, in “a bureaucratic system . . . increase in expenditure will be matched by fall in production. . . . Such systems will act rather like `black holes,’ in the economic universe, simultaneously sucking in resources, and shrinking in terms of `emitted production.'”

    From Drew’s link.

    Something to consider….

    Large private organizations (i.e. corporations) can become bureaucratic, and can suffer from Gamon’s Law. But with corporations if Gammon’s Law runs unchecked there is a limit: bankruptcy (well, unless you employ lots of union employees, in which case the resident SOB in the White House will bail you and the union out).

    Public organizations–i.e. government run programs–do not have this limit. Money can kept being flung at the “black hole” for a very, very long time.

    Until Gammon’s Law is recognized and dealt with at a policy level any attempt to control health care costs via expanding government funded health care will almost surely fail.

    HTH, HAND.

  • Drew

    “Something to consider….”

    Well, there is at least one frequent commenter standing in the critics section, clapping and yelling Bravo!!

    And for those who claim to “care,” while advocating government solutions that are about to wreck health care, even with its current imperfections…….you got some “splainin” to do, Lucy’s.

  • Icepick

    Drew, how do you account for selection bias? Is your child attending a school with a random selection of kids?

    you’re kidding, right?

  • steve

    “Oh and all talk of education policy is bullshit until you address the problem of Gammon’s Law. Until then you are just spewing crap and nonsense.”

    Ok, I think you are partially correct, but I as I said in a comment above, you are missing how much this is consumer driven. You will understand this better when your kids are older. The kids that want to go to our top schools today are much better educated than those in the past. You pretty much have to have taken calculus and advanced science classes. The competition is much stiffer. They are competing against the best students from China, India and South Korea. It really starts at the pre-school level.

    Pay attention when you take your kids for interviews. They dont talk that much about the actual classes. They talk about making your kid safe, or the food, or the gyms or the entertainment. That all takes more admin. Why are they doing this? You seem to assume they do this just because they want to have more administrators. Maybe, but I think it is because they have noticed that is what helps them get more students and more of the ones they want. This has clearly trickled down to the second and third tier schools. Just pay attention to what parents say when they come back from school visits.

    Steve

  • The kids that want to go to our top schools today are much better educated than those in the past.

    Sampling bias? Sure, those striving to get into the best schools are better educated than in the past, but that doesn’t mean our school system is better in general in terms of the “median student”.

    Maybe, but I think it is because they have noticed that is what helps them get more students and more of the ones they want.

    The safety thing, IMO, is BS. How dangerous is it for college students on campus? And the people running those programs are going to up sell them any chance they get. That is how you get a bigger budget after all.

    Frankly, this just fits in all too nicely with Gammon’s Law. Administration putting a good sales pitch to justify their additional administrative costs that are virtually unrelated to the actual purpose of these schools…education.

  • Drew

    steve at 2:45

    Please tell me this was tongue in cheek.

  • They talk about making your kid safe, or the food, or the gyms or the entertainment. That all takes more admin. Why are they doing this? You seem to assume they do this just because they want to have more administrators. Maybe, but I think it is because they have noticed that is what helps them get more students and more of the ones they want.

    I wonder how we would go about testing this in a quantifiable way? Maybe see if we could determine which schools are the safest, whether they’ve had a flood of applications, and whether the median test scores of the entering classes is rising. Sounds interesting but kind of a tall order.

    Conversely, we could identify the most dangerous schools and determine whether they’ve have a drop-off in applications and test scores.

    I have to say that I’m skeptical.

  • Drew

    “Drew, I guess what I’m looking for in terms of education policy is evidence of what things schools can do that are independent from (a) the cognitive ability of the student by age five and (b) parental involvement/support. I am more inclined to believe that the highly structured versus less structured format is a child-specific matter.”

    PD – I’m not trained, I’m not competant, to give a definitive answer. I understand “a.” I believe “b” is huge. But I also observe, as an empirical matter, that schools that have absolute standards of conduct and achievement put out great kids who will achieve going forward. And I believe that the coddling nature of schooling today is no friend of those who will have to leave the false and soft mothership, and eventually enter the real world. I think our friend Doctor steve is completely full of shit on this.

  • Curiouser and curiouser. As it turns out there are a number of different lists of “Most Dangerous Colleges”. Several (but not all) of them include Stanford, Harvard, and Yale in their Top 25. I’m even more skeptical of the hypothesis than I was before.

    The “Safest Colleges” seem to be mostly rural, mostly western. University of Idaho. Like that. Unless UofI has suddenly become the most sought-after school in the country the hypothesis is getting weaker by the minute.

  • PD Shaw

    I’m not skeptical of the crime issues. In the late 80s there was a lot of public concern about the high level of crime on campuses and eventually federal law required the schools to report their crime statistics, which the schools tried to fudge by defining their campuses narrowly. I think it was an issue and I’ve read the claim that more rural universities improved their enrollments during this period relative to urban, but I’d also read that the trend switched as the overall crime rate reduced.

  • PD Shaw

    Dave, the hypothesis is not that someone will go to University of Idaho over Harvard due to crime, it will be that the crime rate will make a difference in the enrollments at comparable institutions.

  • Icepick

    How dangerous is it for college students on campus?

    In the last week in Orlando we’ve had two female students assaulted in one parking lot, someone else pistol whipped and robbed by four people, and I believe someone was shot last week, although there seem to have been a lot of shootings lately, so I may be mis-attributing a shooting to a college campus. Otherwise those are all college campus stories from the vibrant city of Orlando. Doesn’t really indicate what the overall trends are, but it does mean that real life does intrude into the hallowed halls of academe.

  • PD Shaw

    I think schools of any size tend to have crime problems. You have a lot of young people, you have drugs/alcohol, sexual assaults, and sometimes poorer communities spring up around the neighborhoods.

    When I was a freshman, there were a series of armed sexual assaults of women coming back to the dorm late. I and another guy organized an “escort” service to walk women back to two dorms. We had a falling out when he wanted to block girls from calling from bars. I thought it was unconscionable and quit. He ended up taking the program university-wide and using it to become President of the fraternity system.

    I myself was beaten and kicked unconscious as an undergrad, and the story, the sum of which I just gave, bizarrely appeared in newspapers 100 miles away. My housemates and I were robbed during Spring Break.

  • steve

    Guys, it is not just the crime issue, but every school we visited trumpeted having on campus police for escort and emergency boxes. They all talked about programs to monitor drinking. To deal with emotional issues. To help stop suicides. (Cornell spent a good 3 or 4 minutes trying to debunk their rep as having a suicide problem.) But of course you zero in on safety. Go google best dorms, best food, etc. That is what schools are using to sell themselves to parents.

    So here is the experiment I performed. Try calling a school and finding someone to talk about a slightly complex academic load. It is hard as hell to find someone. With persistence, luck or connections you can do it, but it is hard. Now, call the schools to talk about dorms, food or gym facilities. Athletics, entertainment on campus. Guarantee they will find someone pretty quickly to talk with you. They are marketing the sizzle.

    Steve

  • Andy

    I think it’s clear from the context that all three men are emphasizing the importance of higher education, something that’s not borne out by the facts.

    If you exclude all higher education but Princeton, Yale, Harvard, Oxford, etc., then it makes perfect sense!

    Drew

    But I also observe, as an empirical matter, that schools that have absolute standards of conduct and achievement put out great kids who will achieve going forward. And I believe that the coddling nature of schooling today is no friend of those who will have to leave the false and soft mothership, and eventually enter the real world.

    That’s the perception and perhaps you’re right, but as I’m finding with my own kids, one size rarely fits all. Still, I wonder (because I don’t have time to look it up), what, if anything, studies of separated twins have to say on the topic.

  • TastyBits

    @Drew

    In the area of her school, your daughter’s HS diploma will be worth more than many other’s college diploma. It is understood that she is at the same level as most non-technical degrees, and at least one or two years into a technical degree.

    It is not just the quality of your daughter’s diploma that is attractive to employers. Her diploma is an indicator that she is able to be on time, dress properly, willing to work, speak grammatically correct, etc.

  • jan

    They are marketing the sizzle.

    I’ve heard the same thing from other parents, too.

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